The Intricacies of Scripture Translation

Sat Naam everyone,

It’s been a long time since I posted any news – so I am going to make this a regular update from now on. Today I had a really interesting discussion with a university professor in charge of translation studies and it gave me an interesting vision about what the future of the Sikher project might look like, which I’d just like to share with you.

Much of the major faiths, especially Christianity and Islam, have always been extremely organised and put a lot of funding towards their translation activities so that their scriptures are available in many different languages. They have organised teams of natives across the world that have scriptural knowledge and created custom software to allow a translator to see all previous translations of a given line of scripture. This approach ensures a translation can be understood by natives speaking a particular language, and also ensures the translation is consistent with previous ones.

Another fascinating idea was about cultural context and interpretation of scripture. Some cultures who do not have such a developed language, for example Eskimos, may not have ever seen a sheep, therefore in order to translate a line of scripture containing the word ‘sheep’ into that native language, the word sheep must be turned into the word ‘seal’. Only now could an Eskimo native be able to relate to the line and understand it. Of course for scriptural translation this may seem a little blasphemous, especially if looking at it from a Sikh perspective of respecting the original word of the Guru, however if all translations are just a means to understand and relate to the original scripture, then it makes sense to do this for less developed languages because the message of the scripture can then be understood by the native speaker and can travel further than it would have otherwise.

However, the impact of cultural context is not just limited to less developed languages, it can even be seen in our most modern and widely used English translation of Shri Guru Granth Sahib Ji by Dr Sant Singh Khalsa. For example, take the following line from Japji Sahib by Guru Nanak Dev Ji:
ਗਾਵਹਿ ਖੰਡ ਮੰਡਲ ਵਰਭੰਡਾ ਕਰਿ ਕਰਿ ਰਖੇ ਧਾਰੇ ॥
gaavehi khandd manddal varabhanddaa kar kar rakhae dhhaarae ||
The planets, solar systems and galaxies, created and arranged by Your Hand, sing

The use of the words ‘planets’, ‘solar systems’ and ‘galaxies’ are only understood in a modern cultural context with our current scientific understanding of the universe, therefore the original words ‘khandd’, ‘manddal’ and ‘varabhanddaa’ could never have exactly meant ‘planets’, ‘solar systems’ and ‘galaxies’ – however today in modern English this is how we can appreciate the original words in Gurmukhi. A translation can never be perfect, and I am not here to say any translation is wrong, my point is simply to show the power and importance of cultural context in translations. In my personal opinion, if a translation can give a person even a glimpse about the meaning of the original line then it is a successful translation and will inspire the reader to search for the deeper meanings behind the scripture.

So what does all this mean for the Sikher project? Well, firstly I hope to learn more about the intricacies of translations and as a result I’m getting involved with some translation communities and projects. Secondly, I have deep desire in my heart to create a worldwide translation project which is well organised and funded, I think it would be fantastic to have a translation of Shri Guru Granth Sahib Ji in all the major languages of the world, the most influential languages today being English, Spanish, Russian, French and German – as was the original promise of the Sikher 1.0 software. Thirdly, I’m already working on a few open source software projects that will help speed this vision along and which I shall announce when the time is right.

My basic motivation is this: if the Sikh scriptures, the Shri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, has so many gems, jewels and rubies within it which could enrich the lives of thousands with happiness, health and prosperity, then how best to deliver that message to the world? As always, I welcome everyones’ thoughts.

Sat Nam.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 at 4:38 pm and is filed under Insights. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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